Sophia Timba | December 05, 2023
Growing Opportunities in STEM
Funding from the National Science Foundation supports underrepresented groups and builds a community to increase retention in STEM fields.
Encouraging high school students pursue a degree in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) is one thing, but colleges across the country are finding that keeping them enrolled in the programs is an entirely separate challenge. Nationally, dropout rates for STEM students are some of the highest across majors, with even more students transitioning into non-STEM degrees.
Faculty at SUNY Brockport are working to combat this trend. In 2020, mathematics professor Rebecca Smith and education professor Carol Wade secured a $1 million grant through the National Science Foundation towards the S-STEM program — a scholarship designed to support upperclassmen and graduate students with financial need through funding and community-building. Wade and Smith are partnering to run the program and publish research on the efficacy of such a program on student retention.
“We want to support students during their hardest culminating semesters so they can take on research with their professors as they get closer to graduation.”
The S-STEM Scholarship places particular emphasis on supporting underrepresented groups, such as women and students of color, though any student majoring in mathematics, computer science, computer information systems, or physics could be eligible.
“These students come in, they’re transfer students, students from different countries, different majors, and they might not have a good community at Brockport,” said Wade. “It’s not a recruiting tool to get them to Brockport, but it is a tool to get them to stay in STEM.”
Students in the program receive $2500 in funding each semester, as well as participate in meetings where they collaborate on research and problem-solving while presenting their findings. The goal is not just to help support the students financially through their degrees, but also to build support and a community of both peers and mentors that they can turn to.
“We ask them broad and complex questions about things like bitcoin or ChatGPT, and it takes discussion to say ‘okay, how are we going to get from here to something we can present in eight hours?’” Wade explained. “It’s fun to see them become a cohesive group working on problems together.”
Mathematics major Morgan Wiater finds that getting to work in closer circumstances with faculty mentors has had a large impact on her success.
“It helps build your confidence knowing they’re putting this work into you, and they get to see you as a person,” Wiater said. “I can email them comfortably, and they know who I am. That’s huge.”
With STEM degrees in high demand, Wade and Smith feel it’s important that students can focus on their studies and internships as much as possible, without external stressors including jobs and money interfering.
“We really want to support students during their hardest culminating semesters so they can take on research with their professors as they get closer to graduation,” Smith said. “I see success in talking with students who don’t have to go out and get a job. They can spend more time on their studies and on building connections.”
Alongside monetary support, the value of having close peers and mentors within STEM at Brockport has an immeasurable impact on the mindset of the students, especially those in underrepresented groups.
“This program is already bringing people out of their shells. It’s awesome,” said Wiater. “It’s incredibly valuable to be working with women and other minorities while connecting with people who understand the struggles we can face in this [STEM] environment.”
Stacey Do, double major in mathematics and computer science, remembers struggling with feeling out of place in STEM, but she refused to let that stop her.
“Computer science is male dominated, and it was intimidating at first,” Do said. “I didn’t want to let that be a reason not to join, because that’s why a lot of other girls don’t join either. I want to be part of showing girls that you can and should join.”
Do attributes a large part of her comfort and finding her place at Brockport to the S-STEM program and forming a community through it.
“When I first joined, I didn’t know anyone,” Do recalled. “Through the whole experience of social building, I’ve grown more in my major. I feel like I can be myself here.”